You might think organic food would cost less than conventional food since the production is spared the cost of the chemicals, synthetic pesticides, and antibiotics. Yet organic products typically cost 20 percent to 100 percent more than their conventionally produced equivalents.
In an economy that is sluggishly recovering from a recession, that’s a price tag many Americans can’t afford, even though the majority of them would prefer to buy organic. If you’re part of that majority, you’ve probably wondered what’s behind that cost. Here are the top 10 factors contributing to the high price of organic food:
1. No chemicals = more labor
Conventional farmers use all of those chemicals and synthetic pesticides because they end up reducing the cost of production by getting the job done faster and more efficiently. Without them, organic farmers have to hire more workers for tasks like hand-weeding, cleanup of polluted water, and the remediation of pesticide contamination.
The Organic Farming Research Foundation explained it well: "The organic price tag more closely reflects the true cost of growing the food: substituting labor and intensive management for chemicals, the health and environmental costs of which are borne by society."
2. Demand overwhelms supply
Retail sales of organic food rose from $3.6 billion in 1997 to $21.1 billion in 2008, according to the USDA, and 58 percent of Americans claim they prefer to eat organic over non-organic food. However, organic farmland only accounts for 0.9 percent of total worldwide farmland, and organic farms tend to produce less than conventional farms. Conventional farms have the farmland and the supply to keep costs down since manufacturers are able to reduce costs when producing a product in larger quantities.
3. Higher cost of fertilizer for organic crops
Sewage sludge and chemical fertilizers might not be something you want in your food, but conventional farmers use them because they don’t cost much and are cheap to transport. Organic farmers eschew these inexpensive solutions in order to keep their crops natural and instead use compost and animal manure, which is more expensive to ship.
4. Crop rotation
Instead of using chemical weed-killers, organic farmers conduct sophisticated crop rotations to keep their soil healthy and prevent weed growth. After harvesting a crop, an organic farmer may use that area to grow "cover crops," which add nitrogen to the soil to benefit succeeding crops.
Conventional farmers, on the other hand, can use every acre to grow the most profitable crops. Because crop rotation reduces the frequency in which organic farmers can grow profitable crops, they’re unable to produce the larger quantities that are most cost-effective for conventional farmers.
5. Post-harvest handling cost
In order to avoid cross-contamination, organic produce must be separated from conventional produce after being harvested. Conventional crops are shipped in larger quantities since conventional farms are able to produce more. Organic crops, however, are handled and shipped in smaller quantities since organic farms tend to produce less, and this results in higher costs. Additionally, organic farms are usually located farther from major cities, increasing the shipping cost.